Professional News
Stereotypes Dog Police Who Confront Mentally Ill
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 2 page 10-10

A new study examining the attitudes of police in the Chicago area reveals misconceptions about people with schizophrenia; officers saw them as more dangerous and less credible as victims than those without a known psychiatric diagnosis.

The findings carry implications for the ways in which law enforcement officials are trained to approach and interact with people with serious mental illness, according to first author Amy Watson, Ph.D.

"If police perceive a person with schizophrenia to be more dangerous, they are more likely to respond more forcefully than they would otherwise, which increases any potential for violence," Watson told Psychiatric News.

Watson is an assistant professor and director of research at the University of Chicago Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. Her findings appear in the January Psychiatric Services.

Watson recruited a sample of 382 police officers from the roster of a law-enforcement training program offered in Chicago and surveyed them from March through June 2002.

All were randomly assigned to one of four vignettes. Each featured a man in four different roles—in need of assistance from police, a victim of a peeping Tom, a witness to a hit-and-run accident, or a suspect in a physical altercation.

The man who needs assistance, for example, has been sitting on the bench of a local train station all day. Despite the frigid weather, he is wearing a light jacket. When questioned about why he is on the bench, he replies that he has no money and no way to get home.

Researchers asked the officers to imagine themselves encountering this man in the line of duty.

In the study, researchers told half the officers in the sample that the man in the vignette had schizophrenia. The other half of the sample received no mental health information about the man.

Police then completed an Attribution Questionnaire so researchers could determine officers’ attitudes toward the man. i

Besides believing the man with schizophrenia to be more dangerous, officers also indicated that he was more worthy of pity and less responsible for his predicament than the man who lacked the "schizophrenia" label.

Officers also indicated that they were significantly more willing to help a person identified as having schizophrenia than a person without that label.

That police believed the man with schizophrenia to be less responsible and more pitiable, according to Watson, could be good or bad, depending on the circumstances.

Such views may prompt officers to urge people with serious mental illness to find treatment or assist them in finding treatment. On the other hand, these perceptions can be laden with stigma, Watson pointed out. "The belief that people with schizophrenia can’t take care of themselves can be quite disempowering," she said.

Watson expressed concern over another finding—that the mental illness label was associated with greater perceived credibility of the person in need of assistance and lower perceived credibility of the person in the role of victim.

She pointed out that people with serious mental illness have higher rates of victimization than those without serious mental illness and are often hesitant to contact police when they are victimized because they fear they won’t be believed.

"Unfortunately," Watson said, "these findings show there may be some basis to that concern."

Watson said her findings highlight the need for police training in several areas.

For instance, she said, it would be helpful if police were trained to better attend to the needs of people with mental illness who claim to be victimized. "Officers shouldn’t automatically assume that the person’s report is baseless just because [he or she has] a serious mental illness," she said.

In addition, police are usually trained to "establish their authority right away in order to control a situation," Watson said, but when responding to a situation involving a person with serious mental illness who is acutely symptomatic, police should implement less-forceful approaches.

It would also be helpful if police departments and community mental health agencies forged stronger links with one another, she added, so that when a person with mental illness doesn’t meet criteria for hospitalization, police officers know there are other treatment alternatives.

Including people with mental illness in police training would be very beneficial, Watson said, "so police see that people with mental illness aren’t always acutely ill."

The study, "Police Officers’ Attitudes Toward and Decisions About Persons with Mental Illness," is posted online at http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/55/1/49?.

Psychiatr Serv20045549

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